The Minnesota Golden Gophers defense has steadily taken steps forward the past few seasons, going from giving up 33 points per game in 2010, to just 22 in ’13. The 2014 unit should be the best yet under HC Jerry Kill, and it’s no surprise that there’s more NFL talent on that side of the ball than they’ve had in years. Yes, Brock Vereen and Ra’Shede Hageman are gone, but there’s still some intriguing talent. Who are the top 2015 NFL Draft prospects on defense this fall?
Up front is stud edge rusher Theiren Cockran, a junior DE with great size who finished 2013 with a team-leading 7.5 sacks. At 6-foot 6, 255-pounds, Cockran practically has prototypical size and length, though he could add some bulk. He has good bend off the edge and uses his long arms to help closing passing windows. He does pop out of his stance a little bit off the snap, but he has excellent burst and impressive closing speed tracking plays cross-field. As good as he’s been so far, his future is even brighter as he continues developing and growing into his body.
Senior NT Cameron Botticelli is the typical nose in that his stats don’t come close to indicating his true value to the defense. He’s a big body (6-foot 5, 300-pounds) who does a good job taking up multiple blockers to free up the fast moving linebackers. Regular fans don’t notice these kind of guys, but scouts understand his type of role and how important it is to the overall effectiveness of the defense. He’s an under-the-radar type guy who could rise this year.
At MLB is senior Damien Wilson, a big and sturdy run stuffer who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Wilson was all over the field last fall for the Gophers, racking up 78 tackles, 5.5 TFL and a sack. He has good diagnostics reading the offense and is a downhill, in-the-box type thumper who can close multiple lanes. He has good lateral quickness and footwork but is a little stiff in coverage, but is very strong against the run and sheds well. I think he could be a very good fit inside a 34, where some of his coverage deficiencies will be masked.
Next to him is arguably the best athlete on defense for the Gophers, junior OLB De’Vondre Campbell. Campbell has 34 OLB written all over him considering his size (6-foot 5, 245-pounds), athleticism and burst off the edge. He’s still incredibly raw at this point, much like his former teammate at Hutchinson Community College was last year for the hometown Minnesota Vikings (WR Cordarrelle Patterson), but there’s no denying the incredible upside with this kid. He needs to get stronger to hold up better against the run at the point of attack, but his quick-twitch muscle fibers, explosion and burst are upper echelon.